The paucity of curse words in Japanese, chapter 2

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[Guest post by Bob Ramsey]

I’ve been thinking about this subject for more than thirty years. It started for me back in the late 70s. Back then, Herb Passin, who was at the time a professor of sociology at Columbia (remember him?), published a series of articles on language subjects in a popular Japanese magazine, and then in 1980 published them in an English-language volume called Japanese and the Japanese: Language and Culture Change (Kinseido). One of those essays of his was called “Comparative Profanity”, where he made the claim that “Japanese curse words and expletives are basically different in nature from the other major languages of the world.” The essay was more than a little over the top, of course, but it certainly gave me some food for thought.

So then I went back and took a more careful look at what my mentor Sam Martin had said about such topics in his masterful A Reference Grammar of Japanese, and I saw once again how vastly better Martin’s volume is than any other reference grammar I know of—for any language.  On pp. 453-454 Martin gives extensive examples of how the functionality of such vocabulary can be found in a series of verbal suffixes Japanese grammarians call ‘auxiliary verbs’ (助動詞). These colorful suffixes include forms such as –sarasu, -ya[a]garu, -ku[s]saru, the earthiest of which is apparently the latter, which is derived from the verb kusaru ‘putrefies’. Among Martin’s many examples are these: Nani o si-yagaru ‘What the hell are you doing?’; Ore-tati o uragiri-yagatte … ‘The bastards stabbing us in the back…’; Nani site –kusaru ‘What the shit are you doing?’. What’s especially good about Martin’s volume is that his examples were not made up by imaginative linguists but almost all come from real world sources (popular magazines, transcripts, etc.). (And Martin put this unmatched reference work together in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, before the advent of computerized data bases! Everything was written down on thousands and thousands of 3×5 cards!)

I might add that, though that little volume of Passin’s has since fallen into obscurity, it had a lot of observations about Japanese that, despite a few embarrassingly salacious remarks about sex and his mistress (among other things, he talks about how you say ‘fuck’ in Japanese), deserve some serious attention. Passin died back in 2003, but I well remember how astonishingly good his command of Japanese in all its styles was. One example I recall was that one year, when he had some Japanese workmen doing some renovation work on his apartment, he bossed them around in Japanese the way a Japanese boss would. To say the least, that’s not something many Western scholars of Japanese sociology could manage!


  1. Allan L. said,

    September 15, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

    Seems to me we're down to two in English.

  2. Jason said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 2:26 am

    Can anyone confirm if nikubenki, "meat toilet", allegedly Japanese for a slutty woman, is genuinely Japanese? Because for a language supposedly without obscenities, that one seems particularly nasty.

  3. Michael Watts said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 4:03 am

    I can't say anything about Japanese, but I had a chinese teacher who said her mother might refer to a slutty woman as 公共厕所 gonggong cesuo, "public toilet" (on the theory "everybody can go there"). I wouldn't be totally shocked to find the metaphor was also around in Japan.

  4. ycl said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 9:06 am

    Nikubenki is found often in online slang, haven't heard it in real life though. 'Yariman' is more common.

  5. David J. Littleboy said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 10:54 am

    Samuel Martin's 3×5 cards reminded me of a book I just read, "Fune wo Amu", which although not out in translation was made into a movie ( and is, I think, available with English subtitles. It's about a group that's putting together a new dictionary, and in the book (at least; I haven't seen the film yet), they still do their examples on cards. The author apparently spent some serious time researching how dictionaries are edited, and some of the book feels like a dump of her background work, but the better parts read as though they were written with a movie in mind.

    Best line from the book: "Next time you write me a love letter, don't write it in kanbun (classical Chinese)"

  6. Elonkareon said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 5:01 pm

    Relevant to this discussion: The Japanese social media chat app "755" (7gogo) apparently censors a number of words. One of them means ugly… not sure what the others are yet.

  7. Richard W said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

    Martin's book is a real page-turner:

  8. J. M. Unger said,

    September 21, 2014 @ 9:03 am

    Jack Seward's helpful 1991 book Outrageous Japanese was reissued by Tuttle in 2013. He remarks on the subject also in his much earlier book Japanese in Action, still well worth reading.

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